A 15-minute walk from the Shin-Yokohama bullet train stop, just southwest of Tokyo, the Nissan Stadium undergoes an awkward rebranding as the International Stadium Yokohama every time Japan plays host to the “Fifa Club World Cup presented by Toyota”.
The venue is always reserved for both the final and the European champions’ semi-final as its capacity of 72,327 is the largest in the country, but it is generally unloved by spectators because of its running track and abnormally broad perimeter that creates a vast distance between stands and grass.
When Chelsea arrived to face the Mexican side CF Monterrey in December 2012, the place felt cavernous – only 36,648 people bothered to show up.
Three years on, however, and things are changing quickly. In a country of 127 million people, the Blues are suddenly starting to rival Europe’s biggest clubs for popularity. In February, Chelsea announced a five-year shirt sponsorship deal with the Japanese tyre manufacturer Yokohama Rubber, believed to be worth around £40m per season. The announcement was soon followed by news that a £4m bid had been made for FC Tokyo forward Yoshinori Muto, the great new hope of the Japanese national team, although he looks set to opt for a move to the Bundesliga club Mainz instead. A clear shift in global marketing emphasis at Stamford Bridge suggests the club have identified a new growth market – not only for football in general, but for themselves in particular.
Since the bigger sides began integrating their global fan clubs – often charging prohibitive membership fees to people living too far away for ticket benefits to be of regular use – it has been difficult to estimate absolute supporter numbers with any accuracy. But a J Sports survey of 8,644 viewers in 2013 placed Chelsea second in terms of popularity among English football teams – behind only Liverpool, the clear leaders, and ahead of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal, and Manchester United. Merchandise sales have been positive, too.
According to Aiko Kamo of Soccer Shop Kamo, Japan’s dominant nationwide football retailer, Chelsea shirts have consistently remained among the company’s top-10 overseas bestsellers in each of the past five seasons.
“In terms of Premier League teams, only Manchester United shirts have sold better over this period,” says Kamo. “But these sales figures fluctuate significantly with team performance and player transfers, and United had a year as our overall number one when Shinji Kagawa was in the team.”
Chelsea are topping the sales charts for English sides again this season, and anecdotal evidence from shop floor staff is universal: young fans, of high school or university age, are doing the buying.
This is the emerging market which Chelsea are targeting. José Mourinho caused great excitement when he recently suggested Chelsea might christen their new shirt sponsorship with a post-season tour to Japan. Students who could not afford Fifa prices for Club World Cup tickets would have a much better chance with exhibition games.
A brand-obsessed and patriotic consumer base makes the Yokohama Rubber deal more significant than it may seem. For 18 years – from 1982 to 2000 – Manchester United shirts were emblazoned with the logo of the Osaka-based electronics manufacturer Sharp. This remains a source of pride for Hiroki Miyaji, the MUFC Tokyo Supporters Club Secretary, who says that Sharp is the only United sponsor to which he has ever developed a genuine attachment.
“Sharp was seen more as a cheap manufacturer back in the 80s but grew into a first-class brand just as United were becoming a first-class team, which created a much better image for their logo,” Miyaji says. “Japanese people are very picky when it comes to the coolness of the shirt sponsor. Ideally, we would want a company that is both viewed favourably and doesn’t endorse other teams at the same time like Bwin or Emirates have. The look of the Chelsea shirt isn’t especially well liked and that’s partly because of their Korean sponsor, Samsung.”
Dr Masahiko Fujinaga, the chairman of the Chelsea Supporters Club of Japan, agrees. “Our supporters club has members of all ages and everyone, myself included, is very happy that Yokohama Rubber will be the new sponsor,” he says. “To be honest, a lot of people held off from buying Chelsea shirts while Samsung was the sponsor. You will be aware of the diplomatic issues between Japan and Korea – most ordinary Japanese won’t say so publicly, but I think almost everyone is quite fed up of Korea and the Korean people right now.
“I spoke with Chelsea’s Asia representative two years ago, who said that Chelsea shirt sales in Japan had actually been disappointing. When you ask people at the supporters club, most of them say they are not interested in a shirt with Samsung written on it. I believe this reflects how most sensible Japanese feel about Korea. On top of that, football fans tend to develop a stronger sense of patriotism than average Japanese people through their support of the national team.”
This sentiment indicates that Chelsea have another latent demographic, in addition to the young people who have been buying the Samsung shirts, through which they can anticipate future business growth in Japan. But by appealing to one side of regional sensitivities in East Asia, are they in danger of alienating the other? Kyungcheol You, founder of Chelsea FC Korea Supporters Club, suggests so.
“Many fans have a negative feeling around the new shirt sponsorship because Yokohama is a Japanese brand,” he says. “If it’s Samsung, Korean people can wear it on the street without any problems but it would be a bit challenging to wear the uniform publicly when it says the name of a Japanese brand on their chest. Maybe less so if it were a well-established global brand like Sony or Toyota.
“I firmly believe that it will have a negative impact on the shirt sales from Chelsea supporters in Korea, and possibly other Asian countries such as China. It will become a very good topic for any football banter around Chelsea FC in Korea for other supporters. And whenever there are issues between Korea and Japan, it will be even more serious for us to support Chelsea even if it’s just a shirt sponsorship.”
So Chelsea’s newfound interest in Japan is certainly not without risk, but they are at least committed to this strategy until 2020 when the Yokohama Rubber deal expires. Kamo says: “Chelsea are demonstrably passionate about attracting more fans in Japan, and if the Muto deal goes though we will certainly expect to sell more shirts and merchandise”. Fujinaga is more sceptical about Muto’s prospects of ever wearing one of those shirts in Mourinho’s first team – describing the proposed transfer as “a bad idea for all parties” – but anticipates the enhanced likelihood of Japanese tours will guarantee an increase in supporters.
Will it all be sustainable? Yumiko Tamaru, the Branch Secretary of Liverpool Supporters Club Japan, is well-placed to offer advice to teams seeking long-term admiration. “Some of our fans got into Liverpool because they liked The Beatles; some when the team came over for the Toyota Cup in 1981 or 1984,” she explains. “But it is never just about winning titles and star players. Japanese people like stories and drama. Drama like the 2005 Champions League final that makes us believe even when we are losing. History like Hillsborough that brought club and fans closer together.
“This sense of ‘story’ and ‘drama’ is what touches the heartstrings of Japanese people. And this is the biggest reason why our club have been so popular for so long. Even the local boy who became one of our greatest captains and is about to leave this summer – it’s all part of the Liverpool appeal and story.”
Chelsea, too, have a captain who came through the youth ranks and has stayed at the club his whole career. And the young generation of Japanese Chelsea fans adore John Terry – as I found out when I first joined J Sports’ television coverage of the Premier League in 2012.
Japanese football programming typically shies away from overt criticism in favour of happier stories, but having been asked for an English perspective on Terry in light of the Anton Ferdinand case, I explained why not everyone back home was sad to see him retire from the national team. When the show aired later that evening, my Twitter feed suddenly exploded with angry Chelsea fans; their aggressive Japanese intertwined with English expletives and a smattering of words like “captain”, “leader” and “legend”. This began a trend. Any subsequent discussion of affairs at Stamford Bridge – positive or negative – would typically be met with a greater, more emotive response on social media than for other Premier League teams.
Chelsea may not quite have the golden combination of story, success, and constant supply of global superstars to the extent which has kept Barcelona and Real Madrid atop the big in Japan stakes. But they are not very far off, either. And if Japanese kids keep flocking to sing “Blue is the Colour”, Mourinho’s men can expect to be a proper sell-out next time they visit the city whose name will proudly adorn their new strips.